Last weekend, Dynamic Patterns Research attended a virtual presentation in Second Life. It wasn't an imaginary talk, but actually a very real discussion that included George Djorgovski, a top astrophysics from Caltech and the popular science writer from MSNBC, Alan Boyle. It was virtual in the sense that all attendees only had to travel to the closest computer connected to the Internet, log on to their Second Life account, virtually sit in the user-generated, 3D world, and listen and ask questions just as one might do when attending an "old-school" open lecture at a local university.
The back of the head of Matthew T. Dearing's "avatar" in Second Life (it's waiting for the presentation to begin.)
The presentation was about how science research and communication is finding its way into virtual interfaces, such as Second Life. They discussed how this approach is beginning to facilitate a new way for professional scientists to conduct their work. In many respects, scientific collaboration is already conducted virtually, as is a large percentage of all interpersonal communication these days through email and online collaboration and social tools. Any interaction not involving the direct, analog, face-to-face dialog could be considered "virtual." But, an interface like Second Life intends to be different and could be the next era of virtual interaction.
Education experiences from institutions of higher learning and life-long, informal learning centers, such as museum, are already underway in Second Life. For an extensive overview of hundreds of programs interacting now, the SimTech Second Life Education Wiki is a great starting point. In particular, the Exploratorium in San Francisco hosts a Second Life presence, and they recently held an in-world dance party for the Lunar Eclipse event on December 10, 2010. (So, it might not be clear that a dance party is wholly educational, but will assume it was used as a popular traffic generator to introduce users to the many impressive interactive exhibits that have been developed inside Second Life.)
A nice crowd in Second Life for the event. Except everyone was still listening through a third-party radio streaming application.
VIRTUALLY CLUNKING ALONG
The interface of Second Life is still limited, however, but the potentialis certainly obvious. The graphical processing requirements are high, so my bearable laptop with Celeron 2.0 GHz, 2 GB RAM certainly chunked right along in SL, which did not offer a smooth, fluid virtual reality. There is audio capability within SL, but for some reason this particular virtual meeting required listing to the audio over a separate Internet radio-streaming system, through an alternate website. So, in this case, the Second Life interface really wasn't required at all to complete the virtual interaction of the presentation: we just needed to click in to the audio stream and interact via live online chat.. The visuals in SL were just clunky icing on the cake. But, again, the point here, is to present the possibility of where this sort of progress into virtual worlds that are readily accessible from home can go.
VIRTUAL CITIZEN SCIENCE
For citizen scientists, the Second Life interface can be an interesting advantage for future interaction. Groups of people can congregate in a designated Second Life space and discuss projects (as they could just do via email, any online chat system, discussion group platform, or social media interface). More significantly, however, citizen science groups can take advantage of SL by graphically presenting virtual reconstructions of projects, equipment, data analysis, photographs, graphical how-to instructions, and any other reporting of personal work done at home.
In particular, the power of virtually reconstructing real world projects, devices, tools, and even data allows other users in Second Life to directly (er, virtually) interact with and manipulate these objects. For example, a citizen scientists might be building a piece of equipment in her garage and is having some difficulty with a certain design issue. She can construct the progress in Second Life and have others join in and virtually work with the device, collaborate, brainstorm, and innovate together to move the project forward. And, this is just a straightforward example of the possibilities, which are limited only by the imagination, creativity and excitement of sharing and collaborating with others from around the world.